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* This Greater Good section, Research Digests, offers short summaries of recent studies on happiness, empathy, compassion, and more. Quick to read, easy to digest—we review the research so you don’t have to! Subscribe to the Research Digests RSS feed to receive future digests.


Does Music Make Us Smarter?

"Short-Term Music Training Enhances Verbal Intelligence and Executive Function"

Moreno, S., et. al. Psychological Science, published online before print, October 3, 2011.

This study explores how musical training can improve our verbal ability. Seventy-one children between the ages for four and six received either visual art or computer-based music training. In the music training, the children learned about rhythm, pitch, melody, voice, and basic musical concepts; in art, they learned about shape, color, lines, dimension, and perspective. The training lasted an hour a day, five days a week, for four weeks. Before and after the training, the children took an intelligence test measuring vocabulary and spatial ability, and a separate test of their ability to associate related concepts.

The results show that after the training, children in the art group showed only a modest increase in spatial ability. But more than 90 percent of the children trained in music-listening skills showed significant improvements in their verbal ability, as well as higher scores on the conceptual task. The researchers suggest that music training requires “high levels of control, attention, and memorization,” which could be linked to later academic achievement. —Bernie Wong

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Reading Emotion Involves More than the Face

"Context in Emotion Perception"

Barret, L.F., Mesquita, B., & Gendron, M. Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol. 20 (5), 286-290.

While Paul Ekman and his disciples (including Greater Good’s Dacher Keltner) have pioneered the study of facial expressions, this study demonstrates that there’s more to emotion perception than just reading the face. After an extensive review of prior studies, the researchers identify three additional factors that influence how we recognize emotions.

First, our perception can change based on environment, such as certain images or objects that are juxtaposed with an expression. For instance, a scowl could be seen as fearful when paired with a story of danger, but it could be interpreted as disgust when paired with an image of soiled underwear. Second, words play an important role as well: When people are asked to identify emotions without words alongside them, they are accurate just 58 percent of the time; when they can match expressions to words, that rate improves to 83 percent. Finally, our cultural backgrounds influence how we perceive emotions: Research suggests that Western cultures actually tend to focus on the eyes, nose, and mouth when observing facial expressions while East Asian cultures fixate on the eyes alone. Western cultures also see emotion as an internal, individualized state, whereas East Asian cultures judge an individual’s emotion by focusing on the expressions of those around the individual and their relationships to others. As the researchers point out, it’s rare for us to see an isolated facial expression, and thus our perceptions shift as other information is taken into consideration. —Bernie Wong

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